Durant 1926: The Ethics (Spinoza)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 4 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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IV. The Ethics

The most precious production in modern philosophy is cast into geometrical form, to make the thought Euclideanly clear; but the result is a laconic obscurity in which every line requires a Talmud of commentary. The Scholastics had formulated their thought so, but never so pithily; and they had been helped to clarity by their fore-ordained conclusions. Descartes had suggested that philosophy could not be exact until it expressed itself in the, forms of mathematics; but he had never grappled with his own ideal. Spinoza came to the suggestion with a mind trained in mathematics as the very basis of all rigorous scientific procedure, and impressed with the achievements of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. To our more loosely textured minds the result is an exhausting concentration of both matter and form; and we are tempted to console ourselves by denouncing this philosophic geometry as an artificial chess-game of thought in which axioms, definitions, theorems and proofs are manipulated like kings and bishops, knights and pawns; a logical solitaire invented to solace Spinoza’s loneliness. Order is against the grain of our minds; we prefer to follow the straggling lines of fantasy, and to weave our philosophy precariously out of our dreams. But Spinoza had but one compelling desire—to reduce the intolerable chaos of the world to unity and order. He had the northern hunger for truth rather than the southern lust for beauty; the artist, in him was purely an architect, building a system of thought to perfect symmetry and form. 

Spinoza’s effort was to reduce the intolerable chaos of the world to unity and order using precise mathematical form.

Again, the modem student will stumble and grumble over the terminology of Spinoza. Writing in Latin, he was compelled to express his essentially modern thought in medieval and scholastic terms; there was no other language of philosophy which would then have been understood. So he uses the term substance where we should write reality or essence; perfect where we should write complete; ideal for our object; objectively for subjectively, and formally for objectively. These are hurdles in the race, which will deter the weakling but will stimulate the strong. 

Spinoza was compelled to express his essentially modern thought in medieval and scholastic terms.

In short, Spinoza is not to be read, he is to be studied; you must approach him as you would approach Euclid, recognizing that in these brief two hundred pages a man has written down his lifetime’s thought with stoic sculptury of everything superfluous. Do not think to find its core by running over it rapidly; never in a work of philosophy was there so little that could be skipped without loss. Every part depends upon preceding parts; some obvious and apparently needless proposition turns out to be the cornerstone of an imposing development of logic. You will not understand any important section thoroughly till you have read and pondered the whole; though one need not say, with Jacobi’s enthusiastic exaggeration, that “no one has understood Spinoza to whom a single line of the Ethics remains obscure.” “Here, doubtless,” says Spinoza, in the second part of his book, “the reader will become confused, and will recollect many things which will bring him to a standstill; and therefore I pray him to proceed gently with me and form no judgment concerning these things until he shall have read all.” Read the book not all at once, but in small portions at many sittings. And having finished it, consider that you have but begun to understand it. Read then some commentary, like Pollock’s Spinoza, or Martineau’s Study of Spinoza; or, better, both. Finally, read the Ethic, again; it will be a new book to you. When you have finished it a second time you will remain forever a lover of philosophy. 

Spinoza is not to be read, he is to be studied. You will not understand any important section thoroughly till you have read and pondered the whole.

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Comments

  • Chris Thompson  On November 8, 2021 at 12:07 PM

    Spinoza’s effort was to reduce the intolerable chaos of the world to unity and order using precise mathematical form.

    Thermodynamics had not been worked out when Spinoza was writing, but it had been when Will Durant was studying and writing about him.

    If a person can allow their minds to embrace modern physics and to allow it to simmer and to establish along with all the other ingredients of our philosophical maunderings, a marriage can be formed that informs at a more basic, a more mechanical level of understanding.

    We can see this in our current political crisis. Unless I am mistaken, entropy does not weasel its way into an orderly universe to create chaos. Rather, entropy is a placeholder that we use to describe the approach of equilibrium and the increasing lack of potential energy differences between substance particles in a system.

    When I look at society, in terms of physics, I see people as substance particles in that macro-whole of society. A nation can be defined as a unified whole of these substance particles. The most durable society would be one that society which contained the very most unified whole of its members. In biology, consider the ant colony or the bee hive. In physics consider the diamond as compared to coal.

    In every example, to have the most order and the least entropy, every substance particle must hold or be held in order by a tremendous and continuous force. In society, this means the continuous ideological energy input from the individual. In the physics of minerology, this means durable organization provided by previous or ongoing heat and pressure force creating durable crystalline structures.

    Philosophical ideologies are frail which immediately evaporate when tremendous mental energy ceases to be expended in order to hold them in place. Politically, the United States as a crystalline nation seems to have endured about as long as the parchment on which the the United States Constitution has been written. Not in terms of morals, but in terms of durability, when US citizens learned civics and used their energy to put the national idea of the United States in place and hold it there with their individual efforts, it has remained.

    Today, for entropy reasons, a large number of United States citizens are no longer using their energy to hold fast the crystalline structure that is the idea of the United States.

  • vinaire  On November 9, 2021 at 5:50 AM

    My effort with subject clearing is parallel to Spinoza’s effort.

  • vinaire  On November 9, 2021 at 6:03 AM

    The chaos exists not in the universe but in our viewpoint of the universe. A nation and a society represents a group viewpoint that is in chaos. The source of this chaos is misunderstanding of the laws of the universe.

    We may have a pretty good idea of the physical laws. That idea, however, does not extend to the understanding of the spiritual laws. When we understand the spiritual laws the order will be established automatically. It does not require physical force, or “tremendous mental energy.” It requires understanding.

  • Chris Thompson  On November 10, 2021 at 9:02 AM

    I do not have a problem with the English as translated from the Latin as it is presented here. The objections raised such as, ” So he uses the term substance where we should write reality or essence; perfect where we should write complete; ideal for our object; objectively for subjectively, and formally for objectively. These are hurdles in the race, which will deter the weakling but will stimulate the strong.” I do not agree with the introducer’s objections. It seems that (not yet having studied his work) this is rich and descriptively nuanced language.

    Where I fail to become passionate when reading philosophical literature is not in its comprehension, but rather because of an apathy that much can be done to improve our degrading culture. But my apathy is just that, an eroded ability to bring much energy or verve to bear on the social chaos around me.

    And yet, like the climate as compared to the daily weather, cultures do change. Cultures come into being and they go out of vogue.
    Possibly I simply resent the little keyhole sized view of the rate at which a culture can change. My short little life does not provide enough time for me to see the mountains erode.

  • vinaire  On November 11, 2021 at 4:43 AM

    Looks like there is a big difference between your individual viewpoint and the group viewpoint that you are observing. Spinoza had that problem too. He was way ahead of his time.

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